Saturday, October 20, 2018

Where Ancient Ethnic Animosities Really Do Explain Conflicts in the North Caucasus

Paul Goble

            September 19 – “Ancient ethnic animosities” are often invoked to explain ethnic conflicts in the North Caucasus and elsewhere; but in fact, while many groups have long histories of hostility to others, most contemporary nationality conflicts are the products of more recent developments.

            Indeed, in one sense, this common invocation is not an explanation at all but rather a way of avoiding the hard truths about such conflicts. The only times when such an explanation is appropriate is when groups are when conflicts have been going on at more or less the same level for centuries, something exceedingly rare or when groups are fighting over the past itself.

            The latter kind of conflict unfortunately is more common, and one of them is now bubbling up in the North Caucasus over the legacy of Alania, a medieval Christian kingdom in that region which existed between the late 9th century and the Mongol occupation in the middle of the 13th. That legacy includes numerous churches, and they are the subject of dispute.

            In The Caucasus Post, regional specialist Anton Chablin traces the ways in which these “present-day conflicts in the North Caucasus are rooted in this antiquity,” one the few outside the region understand but that is a matter of profound concern within it (

            He focuses on the way in which Karachays and Cherkess (Circassians) are now locked in a dispute about what institution is to control the ancient churches surviving from Alania times. The Karachays are angry that the old churches whose establishment had nothing to do with the Russian Orthodox Church are being handed over to that institution, while the Circassians view these churches primarily as tourist sites.

            The fight has grown from a local one to a political battle involving the presidential plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus and even Moscow officials, with each side appealing to that level from which it believes it can gain the best outcome and the outsiders taking positions or not on the basis of similar calculations.

            The conflict has become particularly intense, Chablin says, because a great deal of money is involved, with each side hoping to gain control of some 150 million rubles (2.3 million US dollars) in funds slated for “renovation” and thus to be in a position to hire members of its community rather than others.

            As the analyst notes, this is not the only place in the region where ancient grievances are generating conflict now. He cites two: in Derbent, where various groups are locked in conflict over the restoration of a mosque even more ancient than the Alan churches; and in Stavropol kray, where there is a growing dispute over how to handle archaeological digs.

            Such conflicts stay below the radar screens of most people beyond the region; but they have the ability to trigger or at least exacerbate contemporary disputes and thus must be tracked in order to predict where conflicts will break out in force.  This is no small challenge, and it is one that few appear up to meeting. 


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